“I’m trying not to get my hopes up.”
The words almost caught in my mouth as I said them. I was cautiously explaining to a friend what I thought might be on the horizon for my life; but as I tacked this disclaimer onto the end of my statement, I thought:
Is this what I believe about God?
I had been journeying with the Lord for many years, by this point; I knew Him to be good, and I knew Him to be generous to me. But in the living out of this faith through young adulthood, complete with a couple big moves, some difficult good-byes and unexpected new adventures, I found myself exercising more caution than trust about what might lie ahead. I wrestled with the question: What does it actually mean to hope?
Christian Hope or Wishful Thinking
In our modern world, hope has become a word splashed across coffee mugs and Instagram posts but seems to have lost much of its actual meaning. In my wrestling, I knew enough about the faith to know that hope wasn’t just wishful thinking or resilient positivity. But what is hope, actually?
For the world, hope might simply be passing positive thinking; but the Christian understanding of hope is that it is a grace to be received and a disposition to be cultivated.
Hope, by definition is always oriented toward eternity: “We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love Him and do His will”1. We grow in hope in this life by growing our desire for the next life, to be with Jesus Himself. In our daily circumstances, we can exercise hope by viewing them with this eternal perspective: How is this drawing me closer to the “glory of heaven,” to eternity with Jesus?
When we talk about getting (or not getting) our hopes up, I don’t think we’re talking about this—the habitual disposition of desiring Heaven and placing our trust in Jesus. I think we’re actually talking about something else—we’re talking about the things we’re hoping for, in this life rather than in eternity. I think we’re actually talking about our desires.
Our desires (which are a bit easier to define) are the longings “for the possession or enjoyment of something that a person’s appetite does not presently have.”2 We have appetites for food, drink, sleep; we desire relationship, success, belonging.
When our desires are well-ordered and transformed by grace, they lead us to God and to His goodness for us. But when our desires are not subjected to grace and when they master us (rather than us mastering them), they can lead us to sin and away from God. For example, consider two opposing vices of the Christian virtue of hope: despair and presumption. We might be tempted to a place of despair and give up hope in our journey toward eternity if we don’t see God tangibly providing for our desires; on the other hand, we might receive a particular gift from God that we have been greatly desiring and falsely conclude that we no longer need hope (or, indeed, need grace).
Though our desires are often for a certain thing—an outcome, a reward, an achievement—we hope in a Person, the person of Jesus Christ, and receiving Him fully in eternity. Both hope and desire are good, necessary parts of the Christian life; but it’s when we confuse them, when we stake our hope on the things we desire or distill hope down to just getting the outcome we want, that we are bound to be disappointed.
Learning Hope From Disappointment
Romans 5:5 tells us: “Hope does not disappoint us.”
Anyone who’s been around the block a time or two knows that this doesn’t necessarily jive with our lived experience. What does this verse mean, when all of us have hoped and been disappointed, when we’ve gotten our hopes up and been wrong?
In a recent season of transition, I wrestled with hope and disappointment. I wrestled with let-down expectations and my own fears and a longing for what I had left behind. I didn’t see how this new season could be better than the last, and I didn’t understand why this was the way that God was letting it be.
After another trip to the confessional with a heart full of bitterness and complaints, I sat with the Lord, mostly alone, in a church that was barely familiar, in a city in which I didn’t want to live.
Why did you bring me here?
After some time, His response was as patient as ever: What if I have more for you here? It might not look like what you think, but what if I have more to show you about My heart for you?
It took a while, but with these words I started to learn: this new season was not Him holding out on me; it was Him continuing to give me a new part of Himself. In the midst of unfulfilled desires, the Lord was using disappointment to show me that He was still there, and He was still good. He was good in the change of pace and new views outside the window and opportunities to change habits. He was good in deep conversations in corner booths, in new houses that became homes, in new friends and unexpected adventures. He was good in continuing to unfold past graces I thought I had left behind and planting seeds of new ones.
I was beginning to learn the true root of hope in a tangible way— knowing what we desire, but desiring even more to meet Jesus wherever things end up, trusting that He is good and that He is present even when the nice-and-neat outcome or the satisfactory result remains out of reach. Even in our disappointment, we can know more of His heart for us, and that is a disposition truly oriented toward eternity.
In these moments, our hope reminds us that “He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23). He will always come to meet us—sometimes with great surprises and answers to prayer, and sometimes just as Himself, in the midst of our disappointment, in all of His kindness and mercy. And though we won’t always find Him immediately, when we keep looking for Him, and keep looking for Him, we know that He will come. This is our pursuit of divine intimacy with our Lord: continuing to seek Him and knowing that He also never stops seeking us.
Sometimes, it’s hard for that to be enough; I don’t always think we’re satisfied with knowing more of His heart. Instead, we’d rather just have what we wanted here and now. But we’d also rather avoid heartbreak, hence the modern refrain: Don’t get your hopes up. Keep your expectations low; it’s better to be surprised than foolish and disappointed.
Choosing to live in hope, real hope, is not easy. We must have “endurance to do the will of God and receive what He has promised” (Heb 10:36). We’ll grieve outcomes that we longed for while we hope in Jesus’ presence; we’ll mourn for things around us while still expecting Jesus to show up. We’ll seem crazy or foolish as we look at things the world says are disappointing and hope to see His presence. As we cultivate hope in and through disappointing circumstances, I think we can get our hopes up, if our hope is that resilient desire to find Jesus in all circumstances. Surely in this, even if it takes a while, He will not let us be disappointed.